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Ethnic Warfare 

A bitchy academic fight within SFSU's College of Ethnic Studies puts the future of the program in question

Wednesday, Jan 26 2005
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As a field, ethnic studies has always had a tortured self-identity. It was a discipline born out of a revolution, yet midwifed, and later baby-sat, by the very people whose offices were being picketed. As an area of study, it borrowed the tools and methods of the social sciences, then tore into those very social sciences as part of the problem. The result was an unsure and defensive discipline, assailed from within and without. Indeed, in explaining the conflict over his tenure, Almaguer partly blames the "ongoing dilemma of ethnic studies trying to reinvent itself and be more than what it was in 1969."

And what was it in 1969? A solution, for starters. The College of Ethnic Studies was forged in the crucible of the late '60s -- of the civil rights movement, in particular -- and today its history is still told with that era's tone of triumphalism and inevitability. (The university holds up its campus strike the way Berkeley does its sit-in.) A brief synopsis: In November 1968, on an already tense campus, George Mason Murray, an English instructor and Black Panther minister of education, was suspended after allegedly encouraging black students to carry guns on campus as protection against racist administrators. Students protested, and just days later, led by the Black Students Union and the newly formed Third World Liberation Front, they went on strike.

By the end of the month the university's president, Robert Smith, had resigned, and by December his replacement, semanticist and future U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, was clambering up a striking student's sound truck to disconnect the speakers. According to one history of the strike, written by a former San Francisco State librarian, the crowd yanked Hayakawa's tam-o'-shanter from his head; Hayakawa turned to author and teacher Kay Boyle and yelled, "You're fired!" -- prompting Boyle to call him "Hayakawa Eichmann."

It wasn't until March 1969, three months after the San Francisco State local of the American Federation of Teachers had joined the strike, that a settlement was reached. Assenting to the Third World Liberation Front's demand for a "School of Ethnic Studies for the ethnic groups involved in the Third World," the university established what would come to be the College of Ethnic Studies. The hope, at the onset, was that ethnic studies could correct the imbalances of America's Eurocentric academy -- that new perspectives could be taught from the inside out, says James Hirabayashi, the school's first dean. Today the college's Web site states, somewhat dreamily, that its "curriculum is designed to foster both a comprehensive understanding of the unique experiences of American Indians, Asian Americans, Blacks, and Latinos in the United States and comparative analysis between them."

"The irony of the strike is that the very people who were forced to recognize us still sat in judgment of what we did," Hirabayashi says. "You look at the structure of education, who has control? It's the board of trustees. And who's on the board? Without naming names, you know that basically, the people on the board are old, white, male, and rich. If some ethnics come along and say, 'Hey, I wanna know about my own history,' what's their response? It takes a strike."

(Administrators have perhaps learned that lesson. Ross Frank, an associate professor in ethnic studies at UC San Diego, calls the creation of his own department in the 1980s "a rear-guard measure" by the university -- a sop to minorities to pre-empt any sort of unrest. "It's been a win-win situation," he says.)

The difficulties of the discipline were evident from the beginning. For one thing, the first generation of ethnic studies programs was divided along racial lines, with the curriculum focusing on single groups, rather than the collective experience of minorities. "It was about creating history," Frank says, "about communities and people whose histories had largely been erased from academia. The problem with that -- with each area seen in isolation -- is that the commonalities about race and ethnicity are hard to get at. It doesn't encourage comparative work, and more to the point, it creates a number of potential divisions within academic structures over resources. The administration sometimes plays [the groups] off each other to minimize the resources committed, and that makes for a very nasty thing."

Moreover, Hirabayashi and the college were relegated to the margins, a puzzling stepchild among some of the more established units. One year, the black studies department offered a course on African drumming, led by a Ghanaian drummer. Hirabayashi first placed the course in a classroom in the math department, which immediately drew complaints. "I guess mathematicians can't add and subtract to African rhythms," he now says with a laugh. He then moved the class outside; the library complained. Finally, he pushed the course off campus.

Some of these problems have persisted, in one form or another, through the four deans since Hirabayashi. When Almaguer took over, he says, the college was "very ethnically Balkanized, very separated, particularistic. Every group and department was only interested in themselves, what they were doing. There were lines of difference within all the units -- different Asian groups, different Latino groups -- but there was very little appreciation of the commonalities that people might have.

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Tommy Craggs

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